Gertrude is crowned Queen of Denmark at Elsinore, while Hamlet regrets the death of his father. He loves Ophelia, daughter of the old counsellor Polonius, but now sees his father’s ghost, who tells him of his murder by Claudius. In the second act Ophelia, now neglected by Hamlet, seeks permission from Gertrude to enter a convent, but this is refused. Visiting players perform the play of King Gonzago, catching the conscience of Claudius. Hamlet watches Claudius praying and learns from Polonius that he knew of the plot against the former king. In his mother’s room Hamlet is about to kill her, but for the intervention of his father’s ghost. A ballet opens the fourth act, La Fête du printemps (The Festivity of Spring), followed by Ophelia’s musical madness and death. In a final act Hamlet mourns her loss and, instigated again by his father’s ghost, kills Claudius, to be declared king himself.
The version of Hamlet devised for Thomas has a relatively happy ending, a major change in the original. It has suitable operatic ingredients in a ghost that appears with some frequency and in a mad scene that is extended to allow various aspects of histrionic dementia, before Ophelia joins the Willis, the group of spirits of unmarried girls into which Giselle was recruited. French opera demanded a ballet, although this may not seem entirely appropriate in this dramatic context. There is a rousing baritone drinking-song in O vin, dissipe la tristesse (Wine, banish sorrow) and Ophelia’s mad scene, À vos jeux (To your sport), has provided a dramatic vehicle for a number of distinguished prime donne. The opera, however, above all offers an important and impressive baritone title role.